Save the Blobfish! Conservationists Are on a Mission to Protect Ugly Animals

They might not win any beauty awards, but homely reptiles and fish are key to maintaining the planet’s biodiversity.

A blobfish. (Photo: Facebook)

Oct 10, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Katharine Gammon has written for Nature, Wired, Discover, and Popular Science. A new mom, she lives in Santa Monica.

Outrage often accompanies news of endangered animals harmed by humans, particularly if the critters are cute and cuddly. Not so the cosmetically challenged blobfish. When deep-sea trawling nets threatened the species in 2010, few people took notice.

Simon Watt wouldn’t stand for it. He founded the U.K.-based Ugly Animal Preservation Society in 2011 and wrote a book about the “unlucky” species that don’t get the attention they deserve.

That’s what motivates Watt, a biologist by training. “While the vast majority of life out there is dull and ugly, we humans are so focused on mammals; we have to be less myopic,” he said. “Just because a species had the luck to evolve a face that looks like a teddy bear, that’s not enough of a reason to be so focused.”

At the society’s comedy nights, a range of cuteness-challenged creatures are championed by comedians, and by the end of the evening, one ugly critter is selected as the winner.

Audience members vote with their applause to determine which animal will become the newest ugly mascot for the Ugly Animal Preservation Society. Last Friday, the Edinburgh Zoo chose the Seychelles long-legged centipede, an endangered insect with long, hair-covered legs. Cute? No way, but it’s important—just like pandas.

The information we gather on ugly animals can have beautiful results for humans. Watt pointed to research in frog biology, which helped create the first pregnancy tests, cloning technology, and psychedelic drugs and may aid efforts to find new antibiotics.

“Humans discover 50 species per day, but we kill between 200 and 250,” Watt said. “You could say that all extinctions are natural, but this is currently happening 1,000 to 10,000 times faster than it should be.”

As animals go extinct at a rapid rate, the Ugly Animal Preservation Society argues that too much attention is focused on charismatic megafauna. Take the panda. Pandas are the most expensive animals in the world to keep. Zoos spend $500,000 a year on upkeep—about five times more than on an elephant, according to the Atlanta Zoo. That leaves Watt wondering if those dollars could be better spent to help conserve biodiversity hot spots.

These hot spots represent just 2.3 percent of Earth’s land surface, but they support more than half of the world’s plant species. On top of that, nearly 43 percent of endemic bird, mammal, reptile, and amphibian species call this tiny portion of the planet home, according to Conservation International.

“We do have to get past our sense of aesthetics,” Watt said. “We have to focus on where we can get the most bang for our buck.”

Watt is taking his message to Washington, D.C., where he’s giving interactive lectures at the Kids Euro Festival on Nov. 5 and 9.

His personal favorite weird animal? The Surinam toad. “The female lays spawn on the male’s belly mid-somersault,” he explained. “He spreads them across her back like a frog jam, and then her skin grows around them—and then the frog babies hatch fully formed from her back.”

It’s gross and cool and interesting—a far cry from cuddly mammals.